How I Was Almost Killed by a Pepperoni

The customer experience is something every business, regardless of size and industry, should hold in high esteem. If your customers are not happy, they will not be your customers for long. And the smaller your business is, the more important happy customer experiences are to your success.

The reasoning behind this is quite simple. To paraphrase Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person who experiences a negative situation, is 2x’s more likely to talk about it, than talk about a positive experience.”

This was never so apparent to me until I was nearly killed by a pepperoni. 

In all fairness to the pepperoni, I probably wouldn’t have been killed (God willing), but had I eaten it, I would have been sick as a dog, itchy as all get out and curled up in a ball writhing in pain for days.

I am highly allergic to wheat. I don’t have to eat it to react either. Just getting close enough to smell it is enough to trigger a major allergic reaction. This requires me to be hypervigilant when eating out, grocery shopping and attending events where food is served.

About two months ago, I was at a local grocery store in the deli section where I was on a quest for Boars Head pepperoni. Boars Head cold cuts are gluten-free. Having a severe wheat allergy, gluten-free products are a necessity.

At the deli counter, there were several people working and one other person in front of me who was already being helped. A woman behind the counter asked what I wanted, I had seen her there before, and she has waited on me in the past. I told her that I wanted half a pound of Boars Head pepperoni.

She changed her latex gloves (always a good sign!), took the pepperoni out of the case and proceeded to put in on a table to take the wrapping off. The problem was on this particular table, sandwiches were being constructed. She plopped this pepperoni down- right into a pile of crumbs!

Immediately, I got her attention and told her as she just placed the pepperoni onto a pile of crumbs, and as I am allergic to wheat, I no longer wanted it. She didn’t seem to understand. Another woman behind the counter explained to her that she had just placed the pepperoni into a pile of gluten. 

She then offered to turn it around and cut the other side that was still in paper and hadn’t touched the crumbs. The three other people behind the counter all seemed to think that was a good idea. At that point, I couldn’t get away fast enough. 

At this point in my customer experience, I was appalled. At the same time, I was terrified of what could have happened, had I not been paying attention to what was going on behind the counter. 

The next step in my customer experience was to begin the relaying my negative experience to others.

When I got home, I called the manager of the store to file a complaint. I told the manager I had been a loyal customer for the past three years and never had a problem. However, the issue I just experienced in his store was so horrifying I felt obligated to file a formal complaint.

Very calmly (if I do say so myself), I explained I have a severe wheat allergy, I carry an epinephrine autoinjector and if exposed to wheat, I run the risk of going to into anaphylactic shock. I then relayed the series of events that occurred in the deli department that morning. Then, we got down to brass tacks.

I asked him what sort of safety training this store uses to train its people. The woman behind the counter offered to turn the pepperoni around, but seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still going to place the “crumbed” side on the slicer where it would contaminate everything else that touched it!

Gluten exposure can occur through contact. A fact one would expect people in the foodservice industry to know!

While I had him on the phone, I also ran him through some scenarios like what would have happened if I had been a mother who has a child with an allergy  and was distracted and not paying close attention to what was happening behind the counter. Alternatively, what would have happened if she put that pepperoni in the slicer and it wasn’t cleaned before the next person whose allergy is worse than mine got a contaminated order? 

As soon as I realized I was dealing with a person ignorant in food safety protocols, I walked away. But if that pepperoni ended up back in the case, countless other products could be affected. Multiple people with gluten issues purchasing Boars Head cold cuts could have ended up sick with no idea how it happened.

Unless you suffer from food allergies (or care for a child with food allergies), I don’t know if you can truly understand the terror that fills one when you’re exposed to your allergen through someone else’s negligence. 

The manager was very polite. He listened to my concerns. Assured me that an investigation would be launched and apologized. He did everything one would expect.

Unfortunately, the manager’s reassurances won’t mitigate my fear of shopping there any time soon. Two months after this incident, I still actively avoid the deli counter in this store and this store’s affiliates. 

Moral of the story: people are two times more likely to tell others about a negative experience over a positive experience.

Case in point: as soon as I got off the phone, I was sharing my experience. I called my mother. I reached out to several friends in the community with allergies that shop at the same grocery chain to tell them what happened. I wrote a blog post over at The Reputation Factory. 

And my response was relatively tame. I haven’t written to the corporate offices or called the local news outlets so that others can be aware of my experience. I haven’t gone on a Twitter rant or stalked the company on Facebook.

Customers and clients who have a bad experience often ask themselves some version of the same question:

“If spreading my story saves one person from loss of income, or major inconvenience, or discrimination, or a life-threatening allergic reaction, etc.,” could you argue against speaking about negative experiences?

In business, your reputation is everything. Now, this incident occurred at a major grocery chain in the southeast. My complaint and my relatively small network of family, friends, and acquaintances likely won’t cause them any significant damage, either in terms of reputation, or lost revenues.

The smaller your business is, (and the Small Business Administration classifies a “small business” as any business with less than 500 employees – let that sink in), when someone speaks negatively about you it’s much harder to weather the storm. Your target audience is a finite segment of the population. The more your audiences contracts the harder it is to make money.

When your business does something that could cause your customer grave illness, hardship or in the most extreme case; death, an apology will not be enough. That is why when it comes to running your business reputation management needs to be a part of your daily routine.

Another aspect of this story that can affect your business is the partners you work with. I actively sought out a Boar’s Head product. I’ve never had any issues with them, and their standards of safety go so far that when I was first diagnosed with my allergy, my doctor told me to seek out this brand.

A Boar’s Head product was involved here, but the negligence was entirely on the staff at the grocery store working the deli counter. In this particular case, the maker of the product gets caught in the cross-hairs. For those of us in the B2B world, potentially using others’ products or services as part of our offerings, this is a sobering thought. 

You often find this sort of incident in franchised food businesses where an employee of a franchisee engages in some sort of disgusting behavior that goes viral. The parent company then must launch into full-scale crisis containment mode to ensure this isolated incident doesn’t affect the rest of their franchises or wholly owned locations.

Another aspect of the customer experience is social media. These days anyone with an issue can go onto a social media channel (or several), and broadcast from the hills. Also, with smartphones so prevalent in today’s society people can record video of their experience and post it seconds later.

This is why social media management should be a part of your marketing strategy. Knowing how to respond to an incident can also directly affect the customer experience. 

At the end of the day providing your customers and clients with the best possible customer experience should be a high-level goal of any business seeking to turn a profit. At the same time, having a strategy for mitigating negative experiences should also be part of your strategy.

Are you having trouble connecting with and relating to your target audience? We can help! Visit us today at www.stcgllc.com to learn more about how our strategic marketing consulting services can help your business.

A version of this blog “Negative Commentary” first appeared at thereputationfactory.com.

© 2019, Angela M. Insalaco. All rights reserved.